May 25, 2024
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The Impact of Women Teaching Gemara

When I began my career in the field of Jewish education, I knew that I wanted to impact the next generation of young female Gemara learning. When I compared my own experience at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, where I had the privilege of learning Gemara from many women (including Mrs. Zehava Bitter, Yoetzet Tova Sinensky and Mrs. Rivka Kahan), to those of my peers who attended schools in which they only learned Gemara with male teachers, I realized the profound message I had intuited by seeing these and other female teachers I aspired to become. I wanted my future students to see that their Torah learning could continue with them into their adult life and that if they wanted, they too could make a career through their learning.

In my time teaching Gemara at SAR, the first institution in which I personally experienced co-ed learning in Judaic studies both as a Beit Midrash Fellow and as a classroom teacher, I have seen firsthand the great need and impact of having female role models for female students, especially in the co-ed setting. What I did not expect was the level of meaning and importance I would find in teaching male students as well.

I remember my first year when teachers from my alma mater, the Beit Midrash for Women at Migdal Oz, came to visit SAR to offer informative sessions to prospective students. It was always a point of pride to share how we were helping to advance Jewish education in the States. That first year, I distinctly remember one of my teachers voicing genuine surprise at the realization that I was teaching both young men and women in my classes. In SAR, while a majority of Tanakh teachers are women and Torah She’Ba’al Peh teachers are men, there is also a significant minority of the inverse: My husband, Rabbi Adin Rayman, and I are included on that list.

Earlier this year, I reached a moment of epiphany in the classroom. Over my time at SAR, I have actively and enthusiastically helped my students prepare for their yeshiva and seminary interviews. I often assign a sugya of Gemara with a Rashi and Tosafot to my students early in the year to read and translate for me. Many of my students invariably come back to review that same text in preparation for interviews with intensive learning programs that request a prepared sugya to be learned with the interviewer. In a subject that has no standardized testing, it is gratifying to hear of the success of SAR students who go on to learn in Israel equipped with the skills we have tried to develop over the course of high school. One student took my Gemara class for ninth and 12th grade and my husband’s class for 11th. I jokingly said to one of the interviewers: “Let’s see where a Rayman Gemara education gets my students!” And while I did not previously see or feel a difference between how I related to my students’ success in entering a shana ba’aretz program whether male or female, this year it was brought subtly but strongly to my attention.

A student came to class one day to apologize for his lateness. “I was interviewing for a yeshiva,” he said. I asked if he mentioned that I am his teacher, something I know the interviewers often ask. The student’s eyes widened, and then he looked down. “Actually, he did ask me who my rebbe was. But you’re not a rebbe. So I told him the name of the rabbi who taught me Gemara last year.”

For a brief moment, I was crestfallen. I quickly attempted to snap out of it, but my student must have picked up on my reaction because the next thing he said was, “Ms. Rayman, are you mad at me?” I didn’t hesitate in my response: “Of course I’m not mad at you. You just answered his question. And I’m not mad at the interviewer. He probably asks that question all the time to the hundreds of students he’s interviewing. It was just poor phrasing, that’s all.” I quickly turned back to our lesson, fully focused on redirecting our attention.

But a few minutes later, when our sugya came to a natural pause, I returned to our conversation. It felt like an important teaching moment, one that I would regret not taking both for my students and for myself. And what I said to them was exactly this: “I think we just learned something very important from what happened in that interview. When women are not actively included, they become unintentionally but automatically erased.” I expressed that reaction with no trace of resentment, and I feel none as I write these words now. Yet I feel they are important to share. And in that moment in my classroom, I felt that statement had just as much of, if not even more of, an impact on the young men in the room as it did on the young women.

In fact, I know it did. The next day, the same student came in to share with me proudly that he had another yeshiva interview. “I made sure this time that when the interviewer asked, I said that you are my teacher this year. Actually, it was kind of embarrassing for me because the question he had asked was ‘What are you learning this year?’ not ‘Who are you learning with?’” This moment helped me realize the import of the years I have spent not only impacting the young women I have learned with but the young men as well. These young men, some of whom will be moving on to single-sex education for the first time in their lives, have no reason to doubt that their female counterparts are equally capable in their ability to learn and teach Gemara.

I am left wondering what it would look like for our school and shul communities to ask themselves how they can actively include female Gemara educators, certainly in places that may seem to naturally accommodate such opportunities, but perhaps even in those that are more male-centric. The future of women’s Gemara education hinges just as much on the perception of men as it does of women.

Yet if all I accomplished by sharing my thoughts was creating that one moment—a young man truly seeing me and recognizing the role I have played in his Gemara education—then my choices have been worthwhile.

Chaya Rayman (nee Kanarfogel) lives in Riverdale where she teaches TSBP and is Director of the Women’s Israel Guidance Department. She and her husband Adin will be making Aliyah this summer, where she will be teaching Gemara and Halacha at Midreshet Harova as well as serving as a Mashgicha Ruchanit.

 About Machon Siach:

Machon Siach was established in 2015 with a legacy gift from Marcel Lindenbaum, z”l, honoring the memory of his wife, Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, z”l.

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